Disclaimer: Hart Hanson owns Bones. But people like me who play in his sandbox give you all those little moments that Hart and friends leave out. In this case, details about our characters that are plausible but fall into the spaces left unexplored by the show.
A/N: The causes and very existence of Gulf War Syndrome has been in dispute for over twenty years. On December 13th, 2012, the New York Times reported that an academic paper published in the journal Neuroepidemiology provides proof that American bombs were powerful enough to propel sarin (a lethal neurotoxin) from Iraqi chemical weapons depots in Muthanna and Fallujah high into the atmosphere, where winds whisked it hundreds of miles south to the Saudi border. The Times article got me thinking about Booth and how maybe some of the lingering affects of his wartime experiences are more tangible than others. What follows is the result.
It always seems to sneak up on me when I least expect it.
This time, I was sitting in our living room with Parker, playing Call of Duty: Black Ops II on the Wii, when all of a sudden it hit me like a sledgehammer.
The first thing that happens, actually, before the really bad shit hits me, is I get a stiff neck. Sometimes I don't even realize it, especially if I'm in the middle of something like I was, hunching over my Wii controller as I'm sweeping my way through a building with Parker looking for evil narcoterrorists. This time, I didn't notice it until my vision started to get blurry.
"Dad!" he squeaked, leaning away from me as he swung his weapon around and waxed a bad guy with a three-round burst, then swung around again (in the video game) and bumped shoulders with me (in real life). Parker's video game-playing technique is very kinetic, as Bones would say—while I just sit on the sofa and move mostly my hands and sometimes my arms (especially if we're playing a car-racing game), Parker plays with his whole body, jumping up and moving around with his game controller (good thing they're wireless, because I swear that kid would rip the damn thing out of the console if it wasn't), hooting and hollering the whole time.
I dropped my Wii remote on the coffee table and raised my hands up. "Shhhh," I told my thirteen year-old son. "Maybe hit pause for a bit, huh?"
Parker quickly paused the game and gently set his white plastic Wii remote on the table next to mine. "Are you okay, Dad?" he asked me, his voice suddenly quieter than it was just seconds before. He put his hand on my shoulder. "Do you want me to go get your medicine?" he asked, his worried eyebrows visible through the mop of curly blond bangs that fell messily over his forehead.
"Naw, it's okay," I said as I slowly stood up from the sofa. I felt the floor spin a little beneath my feet as I got up, and I knew the migraine was about to hit as soon as things got wobbly. "I'll get it," I told him, tousling his hair as I made my way towards the kitchen where I kept my stash of Sumatriptan injectors.
It had been a while—a couple of months—since I'd had a migraine, so it pissed me off that the one time I get one is on the last day of Parker's visit before I had to ship him back to his mom in England. I'm lucky, and I know it. I don't get these headaches a lot, but when I get one, it can be a real doozy. If I can hit the Sumatriptan right when the blurry vision and vertigo hits, I can sometimes head off the full-on migraine before it turns me into a grumpy, nauseous, throbbing-headed mess.
I stood next to the kitchen counter and injected the medication, then closed my eyes and took a deep breath while I imagined the magic medicine coursing its way through my veins to attack the migraine as I felt the low, round ache start to pulse at the base of my skull. Twenty-plus years I've been dealing with these things, and I was pretty used to the way they went.
"Dad?" Parker asked cautiously as he walked over to the refrigerator. "Do you want a drink?"
I winced and smiled at my son. He really was sweet. Bones had taken Christine over to Angela's for the day so Parker and I could have a day to ourselves, but the crappy rainy weather had put the kibosh on our plan to ride mountain bikes in Rock Creek Park, so instead we decided to play video games. Now I felt like an asshole because I couldn't even do that.
"Sure," I said. "That'd be great."
I blinked a couple of times, trying to clear the blurriness from my eyes as I watched my boy reach into the fridge for a couple of diet Hansen's tangerine-lime sodas (Bones buys those because she says they're healthier than Sprite). Parker cracked the two cans open and handed me one, pushing his bangs away from his eyes to reveal deep, worried creases in his little boy forehead.
"Are you okay, Dad?" he asked me.
I forced a smile. "I'll be okay," I said. "Just gotta wait for the magic medicine to kick in." Parker took a long sip of his soda and gave me the same kind of skeptical look that I'd seen Bones give me a thousand times.
"Why do you get headaches?" Parker looked at me with wide, sympathetic eyes, his brows raised as he watched me carefully as I leaned over the counter, putting my weight into my forearms as I stared into the can of soda and saw the tiny bubbles of carbonation jump out of it and pop just above the lip of the can.
I suddenly remembered leaning over another counter—the lunch counter at the Royal Diner—when my son, then eleven years-old, asked me if I'd killed anybody in Afghanistan. I'd dodged the question then, and told him that when he was a man, I'd tell him about what had happened to me over there, and what I did there. I blinked away the memory and looked over at my son. He was taller, a bit lankier, and the chubbiness in his face had given way to a longer, more oval shape. My son, my little boy, was thirteen years-old and on his way to becoming a man.
"Well," I began, cocking my head to the side as I looked at Parker.
As I looked into my son's big brown eyes, I thought about the war I went off to fight almost ten years before he was born, the war in which I served next to a brave man who died in my arms and became his namesake. I felt a wave of nausea wash over me but it had nothing to do with the migraine. As I remembered, I could hear the sound of a helicopter's rotor blades going whoop, whoop in the back of my mind as I could swear I felt the crunchy squish of the sand underneath my boots while I carried Corporal Parker, fireman-style, on my back en route to the rendezvous point. I remembered how I felt his pulse fluttering and fading beneath my fingers as I held his wrist to my chest, and the way his blood soaked through the back of my fatigues as I stumbled my way through the wadi.
I must have sat there, just looking at him, for a while, because Parker set his can of soda down on the counter and gave me another worried, pouting look.
I took a deep breath and stood up straight, taking a long sip of my soda as I quickly gathered my thoughts. I looked at my son and pressed my lips together in a firm line, trying to ignore the waves of vertigo that lapped at me as I stood there.
"I get headaches sometimes because of stuff I was exposed to during the war," I told him.
"When you were in Afghanistan, a couple of years ago?" he asked me, his voice peaking with curiosity.
I shook my head, wincing a little as the migraine throbbed in protest at that little gesture. "No," I said. "Iraq—when the U.S. went into Iraq in 1991. There was a war called the 'Gulf War.' Or you might have heard it called 'Desert Storm.' I was in that war."
Parker's eyes lit up and he opened his mouth, then hesitated before closing it again. I sensed that a part of him wanted to say "Oh, cool," but then held back after the older, more mature voice inside his head silenced him. In that moment, I swore that I could see my son growing into a man.
"Yeah," he said. "I've heard of that. You were in that war?"
I closed my eyes and gave a soft, slow nod. "It was about nine years before you were born, Parks," I explained. "I hadn't been in the Army very long, just a couple of years, when I got shipped off to Saudi Arabia, which is where the coalition forces gathered before moving into Kuwait and Iraq. My unit, the 101st Airborne, was one of the first American units that went into Iraq in the very first phase of the ground war."
Parker nodded, putting his hand around his soda can and rotating it on the counter as he listened. "Did you jump out of an airplane into Iraq, Dad?" I couldn't help but smile. He knew the term "Airborne" from his video games.
"No," I chuckled quietly. "We took helicopters in. My particular unit, the 187th Infantry Regiment, had the task of securing the low-water crossing over the Euphrates and moving deep into the west part of Iraq to keep the enemy forces from escaping north."
"Yeah," I said with a proud grin. "The 187th moved farther north into Iraq than any other American unit. Your dad made history, Parks."
Parker returned my smile with one of his own. "You're awesome, Dad," he said.
"Well," I shrugged with a waggle of my eyebrows. I could read the excitement in my son's eyes and felt my own mood, despite the wobbly, gut-turning feeling of my imminent migraine, buoyed by his pride and enthusiasm.
My son climbed up onto one of the high-back stools next to the counter and stared at his sweating soda can for a minute, then looked up at me again. "So, how come you get headaches, Dad?"
The faint pulsing at the base of my skull started to turn into a more intense throbbing, but the pain was a bit rounder and not as sharp as it got with other migraines, and I was hopeful that I'd caught the headache in time to prevent the worst of my symptoms.
"Let's go over there and sit on the couch, Parks," I suggested. "Maybe turn down the lights a little, and I'll tell you."
Once we were settled into warm embrace of the living room sofa and the bright, recessed lights overhead were dialed down a bit, I reached up and ran my hand through my hair, sighed, and in a low voice began to explain to Parker what had happened to me. Or, at least, what I think happened to me.
"Before the ground war started," I explained, "there was an air campaign."
Parker turned sideways on the couch and looked at me. "You mean dropping bombs and stuff?"
I nodded. "Yeah," I said. "The coalition air forces, led by the U.S. Air Force, attacked strategic targets inside Iraq. One of the things they were especially worried about were chemical weapons."
My son's eyebrows furrowed at the use of the term, and despite the way my head was starting to throb, I felt a flash of relief at the notion that my thirteen year-old didn't know what these things were. I had always preferred my boy learn about wars and weapons of war from me than a video game. That's why I only let him play those kinds of games once he got to a certain age, and I talked to him about war before I let him play them.
"Oh," Parker said. He pursed his lips together for a second, then asked, "What are chemical weapons?"
I swallowed, then looked away for a moment as I wondered how to best explain. I took a breath and said, "Chemical weapons are gases or other kinds of chemicals that are used as weapons to hurt a lot of people at the same time. The man in charge of Iraq at the time, Saddam Hussein, had a large stockpile of these kinds of weapons: mustard gas, which burns people's skin, mouths, noses and eyes; tear gas, which burns people's eyes; and nerve gas, which affects the brain and the nerves of people who are exposed to it, and it can ultimately kill them. So, before sending in soldiers like me to fight the ground war, the Air Force was sent in to hit the places where the Iraqis stored those chemicals, and destroyed them so they couldn't be used against American soldiers."
"That's good, right?" he asked, a certain tentativeness in his voice. "Bombing those places saved our soldiers from getting hurt by those chemicals, right?"
I took another deep breath, closing my eyes briefly as I tried to ignore the tightness and throbbing in the back of my head. "Well," I said. "Sometimes things don't turn out quite the way people think they will…"
My voice choked a little as I said the words. If there was anything I've learned over the years, it's the Law of Unintended Consequences. Once you set a plan in motion, you lose control over the plan. Sure, you may think you have control, and you may think you know what's going to happen, but in the end, you find that reality doesn't quite play out the way you think it will. Sometimes that's a good thing, and sometimes it's not. If only I could dial back the clock and rein in all the errant consequences of things I have done, so that maybe I could make different decisions. But that's not how it works, does it?
I took a sip of my soda and nodded, more at myself than at Parker. "So," I said, "when they bombed those weapons depots where all those gases were stored, some of the gas got out. It kind of went up in the air, and got blown by the wind, and…"
"Did the gas come where you were, Dad?" my son asked.
I shrugged. "I'm not sure," I said. "This stuff, sarin nerve gas, it's colorless and tasteless, so you don't really know if…well, there's no real way to know if it's there without running fancy tests to check the air for it, and…well, they're not really sure how far it spread. But like a lot of other soldiers who served in the Gulf at the time, I came home and started getting headaches."
Parker looked down into his lap for a few seconds. "Did they tell you that the gas caused your headaches?" he asked me. "The Army, I mean…"
"They don't know why I get the headaches," I said.
Which is true. What I didn't tell my son is that the official Pentagon line is that there is no actual thing called 'Gulf War Syndrome.' The Veterans Administration calls it "medically unexplained chronic multisymptom illnesses."
Hundreds of thousands of other Gulf War vets—both combat vets like me who served in forward areas, as well as support troops who worked behind coalition lines carrying out supply and logistics functions—have been saying for twenty years how they suffer fatigue, headaches, joint pain, indigestion, insomnia, dizziness, respiratory disorders, and memory problems, and their doctors (civilian and otherwise) can't explain why. According to the Pentagon, there's no direct proof that anything that I and my fellow American troops were exposed to while serving in the Gulf—whether it's sarin nerve gas, mustard gas, organophosphate pesticides, depleted uranium munitions, fumes and droplets of unburned crude from the oil well fires, or the pyridostigmine bromide nerve gas antidote we were given to protect us from chemical weapons—caused the symptoms that so many Desert Storm vets are suffering from.
Maybe they know, but won't say, or maybe they don't know because they don't want to know the truth. Maybe they don't know because the wacky-ass chemical cocktail of shit I was exposed to is too complicated to tease out in any manner that would explain why an otherwise healthy forty-one year-old man who hardly even got a head cold before serving in the Gulf now gets migraine headaches once or twice a month.
I don't talk about my headaches, or what happened to me over there. The only people who know about my headaches are Bones, of course, and my old friend, Cam—I mean, I guess it's tucked somewhere in my FBI personnel file with the rest of my medical information, but it's not something I want to talk about, or even think about. I know that it's a part of me, you know, just like the scars on the back of my thigh from the grenade that went off behind me during a battle after which I was captured by the Republican Guard, or the long-healed fractures that still make my feet bark at the end of a long day in the field. Like the memories themselves, I think of it as the residue that the war left behind. I can't wash it off or make it go away. I just deal with it, as best I can, and live my life, but I don't make a lot of noise about it. There's no point, really. And the fact is, I don't want to talk about it.
Just thinking about it makes my headache even worse.
So I just left it at that.
"They don't know why, buddy," I said. "But I'm okay, alright? I get these nasty little headaches every once in a while, but I'm okay. Really."
"Okay," he echoed back, a faint twinge on the edge of his voice suggesting a bit of skepticism. He must have seen the look on my face, because then he said, "It's cool, Dad. I believe you." Then the worry on his face seemed to fade a bit, and I saw him exhale a sigh of relief.
I remember the first time I held him in the hospital, and how small and beautiful he looked, and the tiny murmur of fear I felt when I wondered if he would have any health problems—birth defects or medical issues—because of the nasty stuff I'd been exposed to in Desert Storm. It was with relief that I watched him grow and thrive, healthy as a colt, without any problems at all. And my daughter, my beautiful little Christine—blond-haired like her brother and blue-eyed like her mom—is also healthy. I can't even articulate how relieved I was that, no matter how I myself have been touched by war, and how the residue of the wars I've fought continue to affect my life, my son and daughter escaped unscathed.
"Maybe we'll finish the game later," Parker offered with a tilt of his head. "Is it okay if I watch a movie?"
I smiled back at him, tousled his crazy curly blond hair and leaned back against the cushion behind me.
"Of course it's okay."
A/N: I love Parker and Booth :-) When I saw that NYT article this morning, together with the reference to depleted uranium in "Patriot in Purgatory," it got me thinking about Gulf War Syndrome, and I knew that I had to write a little ditty on it. I don't think this one is too angsty, but hopefully you all liked it anyway.
Just an FYI, for those with great recall of old Bones episodes, Booth took sick time off work to investigate Cullen's daughter's illness in "The Graft in the Girl" (1x20) and used what as an excuse? "Migraine." Yep. *winks*
In any case, I hope you enjoyed this piece. But don't leave me guessing.
Let me know what you thought of this. Please leave a review.
Thanks for reading!